Today I am going to Boquete, Panama. It’s a small city (pop. 19,000) about three quarters of a mile up a narrow river valley in the shadow of the (now dormant) Volcan Baru’ near the border with Costa Rica.
I get here from Pedasi by using the Pan-American Highway, which they are working on improving (and it needs it), dodging about half the country’s police force, who are busy accepting bribes all along the route. Then I pick up a couple of local hitchhikers in Chiriqui’s provincial capital of David, and they guide me around the detours that exist because of a massive 4 lane highway project that will eventually connect once obscure Boqete with an international airport (under construction) in less than an hour.
That should permanently and irrevocably vault this little berg into the limelight, as if it doesn’t get enough gringo attention right now. It is estimated that one in every seven residents are Norde’ Americanos.
The bars and restaurants are full of them, but there’s a good mix of folks from around the world here. Most of the Americans and Canadians are retirees, but there are plenty of backpackers using the hostels as well. The Panamanians themselves have always enjoyed the mild, cool climate as an escape from the tropical heat of the coastal regions, and they bring along their families. And of course the natives are here, and the women still wear the brightly colored enagua dresses that the region is famous for.
I am staying at the hotel in Valle’ Escondido (hidden valley). 4 stars, but only if you get a decent price, which I do because I asked for the “double secret discount” available only if you say the secret words: “I am looking to buy a house.” It certainly isn’t worth the $280 (!) rack rate they have published, but they provide huge, clean rooms, and it’s inside a gated community I intend to take a careful look at.
You can eat at Valle Escondido, but if you want some choices, you’ve got to go to to town, where a decent variety of cafés and pubs can be found. On Saturday night, the town square in the middle of Boquete becomes a hub of activity, filling up with families and tourists alike. There’s music and laughter and a generally good feeling to this place.
I’d recommend you eat at Big Daddy’s in town, which is operated by a couple of expats. It offers that extraordinary rarity in this country, having both good food AND fast service under the same roof. Order the sautéed amberjack and their self-declared “best margarita in Boquete”. Out the door for $13 with tip. Or try Baru’s for the bar scene, but make sure you aren’t in a hurry, because they aren’t. Believe it or not, you can get a very good house salad (Ensalada Boquetina) for only $3.50. Wash it down with the decent house white and you can keep your tab under $6. And if the free breakfast I got at Valle Escondido is any indicator, they’ve got a great restaurant as well. Have the fresh fruit and pancakes with Boquete’s justifiably famous coffee, all served by smartly uniformed waitresses in short order. Great way to start the day!
I like Boquete. I see why others do. In addition to the climate and mountain scenery, it’s relatively clean, the people are friendlier than the big cities, and the public infrastructure is far better than a typical Panamanian village of similar size. You can enjoy all kinds of outdoor adventure activities like whitewater rafting, zip lining, biking, and nature walks within just a few miles of here. No, it isn’t big, and it lacks sophistication, but David is only about 30 minutes away if you want more action. What it offers is good enough for a lot of people from all over the world. I get it.
There are a lot of expats here, and that’s a good thing. You need a support group if you’re going to move to a foreign country. They are welcome in the community, from what I’ve seen, the ones I spoke to seem to be happy here, and they come from all over. In Valle Escondido, for example, 60% are North Americans, but there are people from 21 different countries represented. So I’d say it’s a good place to land.
Would I want to live here full time? Not alone. The small town charm would wear off after a while, and I’d get lonely, I imagine. But for a married couple intent on retiring overseas, this is as good a choice as I’ve seen, if you’re OK with a rural atmosphere.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at some property. Ya’ll come back now.